Martin's homer leads offense; Walker's heads-up baserunning pays off
PITTSBURGH -- When the baseball calendar flips to August, this is the sort of significant game any team hopes to play. And if given that chance, this is the way it would hope to play it.
Clutch pitching off the mound, timely knocks off the bat, smart plays off the top of your head, all on an unseasonably mild Sunday afternoon when the only heat on 37,980 at PNC Park was reflected off the National League Central standings.
A.J. Burnett provided the pitches. Russell Martin provided the loudest knock. Neil Walker provided the brains. The resulting 5-1 win against Colorado maintained the Bucs' 1 1/2-game division lead on St. Louis.
Burnett allowed a run and eight hits as he went the distance -- his first complete game since July 31, 2012, against the Cubs.
Thus, Burnett's complete game was unusual. For him to allow fewer than three runs was not; the 36-year-old veteran did so for the 11th time in as many home starts. He has even won some of them, this being the hard-luck righty's first PNC Park victory in three months.
"It's in your head," Burnett allowed, "but at the same time, you have a job to do, and mine is to execute pitches until skip takes the ball from me."
Skipper Clint Hurdle never even considered doing so Sunday. On the first day of TV's popular Shark Week, the Shark Tank -- the Pirates bullpen -- naturally remained docked. This was the Pirates' first complete game at PNC Park since June 21, 2012, when James McDonald went all the way against Minnesota.
"A.J.'s best game of the season. Best stuff, best command," Hurdle said. "Focus, rhythm, tempo. Pitch efficiency: 26 of 33 first-pitch strikes."
"I actually felt good for nine innings," said Burnett, whose modest total of 110 pitches included a phenomenal 83 strikes. "I noticed that the pitch count was low about halfway through, and you take pride in finishing what you started. Strike one was huge today."
His batterymate's strike was also big. Martin blew up a tight duel between Burnett and resourceful Colorado starter Juan Nicasio by belting Manny Corpas' first pitch in relief for a three-run homer in the fifth and a 5-0 lead.
"They've been throwing me a lot of breaking balls all series," Martin said, "and [hitting coach Jay Bell] said [Corpas] is a guy who throws a lot of sliders, so I decided to wait for one, and the first pitch was right where I like it."
The pitch wound up where both Hurdle and Burnett liked it -- on a line about five rows deep into the seats around the left-field foul pole.
"It sure was a welcome sight," Hurdle said. "We had Nicasio on the ropes, and he made just enough pitches in on our hands to get outta some jams. Martin has continued to find a way to provide us with meaningful at-bats in different situations. That was another one today to give us some distance."
"About time," Burnett said, grinning, then explaining. "He always brags about how he used to hit when I pitched [when the two were Yankees teammates]. It just so happened he did today."
One at a time, the three Colorado All-Star Game starters who so worried Hurdle returned to the lineup. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki was alone Friday, joined by Michael Cuddyer on Saturday, and Carlos Gonzalez joined them Sunday.
Thus facing the Rockies at their strongest, Burnett was at his toughest. He had only a 1-0 lead -- on Andrew McCutchen's first-inning RBI single -- when he had to repel a threat in the third, which began with a man in scoring position as Jonathan Herrera led off with a single to center, but wound up on second when McCutchen briefly mishandled the ball. Herrera immediately advanced to third on Nicasio's sacrifice bunt, but stayed there as Corey Dickerson fanned and DJ LeMahieu bounced to second.
Working hard to get out of that jam was worth it to Burnett, who ended it with that Gonzalez-Tulowitzki-Cuddyer combo about to follow. Still, when it was time, Burnett handled the three All-Stars. Combined, they were 3-for-12, accounting for four of Burnett's nine strikeouts.
"I don't think he missed a spot to me," said Todd Helton, another frequent Colorado All-Star, who went 0-for-3 with a strikeout. "And no doubt about it, they're hot and confident. They've got it going on right now."
"Best I've ever seen him," Martin said of Burnett, not idle praise considering he caught Burnett 47 previous times between New York and Pittsburgh. "He was really locating all his pitches. Fastball was great, he had a great breaking ball, even mixed in a couple of changeups. He was able to give some really good hitters a hard time."
Somehow, the Bucs won despite making a major contribution to the volume of baseball brainteasers in the bottom of the third.
They went from having the bases loaded with none out -- Walker on third, McCutchen on second, Pedro Alvarez on first -- and Martin at bat, to having the bases loaded -- Walker on third, Alvarez on second, Martin on first -- and one out.
Considering a grounder to third by Martin had initiated the intervening sequence, how was this possible? Well, LeMahieu, the Rockies' third baseman, immediately stepped on third, forcing out McCutchen, and threw home to catcher Yorvit Torrealba. But Walker, sensing the force at home on him had been removed, reversed his course and ran back to third, aware that base belonged to him.
With both Walker and McCutchen now standing on third and getting simultaneously tagged out, third-base umpire Chris Guccione pointed to McCutchen as the odd man out, but he'd already been retired.
Walker confirmed that he glanced over his shoulder to see LeMahieu step on third, but deferred to McCutchen: "Cutch made that happen. He could've just run off the field after getting forced. He kept coming to third, which may have confused their catcher, who probably did not see [LeMahieu's play]."
"[Walker] made a very astute baserunning play," Hurdle said. "Once you got the force there, [third base] is vacant. Good baserunning to keep the inning alive."
Thus the bases remained loaded, and Garrett Jones followed with a sacrifice fly to make it 2-0.